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December 2, 2009

Hoover's Henriksen on Obama's troop increase, timetable in Afghanistan

By Adam Gorlick

President Obama is sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan with a pledge to start pulling them back in 18 months. The buildup against the Taliban is the latest twist in an 8-year-old conflict that has become more complicated and increasingly unpopular with American voters and Obama's fellow Democrats.

In a speech delivered Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama outlined his plans to step up American military force while also calling for more training of Afghan soldiers who can take control of their country's security.

Tom Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is closely following the situation. He focuses on American diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens. He spoke with Stanford Report about the Obama administration's efforts to win the war by adding to the 68,000 American troops already in place and helping Afghan President Hamid Karzai create a stable government while also keeping a close eye on Afghanistan's eastern neighbor, Pakistan.


What problems are posed by pledging to begin a troop withdrawal in 18 months?

The timetable was somewhat of a surprise to me and there will be controversy over it. It raises the question of whether the Karzai government can really get itself together in that time, and it may tip off the Taliban to what the United States has in mind. The Taliban could say, "We're coming in 18 months, so you better cooperate with us and not the Americans." But the situation could change and Obama may have to modify his plans. He said we would begin pulling out in 18 months, but what does "begin pulling out" really mean? He left himself a little wiggle room.


What benchmarks need to be met before troops could start pulling back?

The most important benchmark is a stable, friendly government to the United States. I don't think we can count on creating a facsimile of America in Afghanistan in three or four years. A friendly government – one that will not allow sanctuary to terrorist elements – is the goal. And that will be difficult to achieve.


Obama said the troop buildup should not be interpreted as a sign of American occupation in Afghanistan. How important is that message?

One of the best things about the speech is that it announces to the world – and to Afghanistan, most importantly – that the United States is not going to occupy the country. That undercuts the Taliban argument that the United States is trying to occupy another Muslim country. That's a good signal, but we have to be careful with how we proceed. We want to prop up a government that is friendly to us and won't let the Taliban back in. And we'll want to make some improvements to the infrastructure like improving roads and building schools and establishing medical facilities. We want to give them an economic chance to survive and be self-sustaining.


The president talked about supporting Afghan efforts to "open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." What exactly does he mean by that, and how can you trust a member of the Taliban who switches sides?

That's an idea taken from the playbook used in Iraq – that we could bring over elements of the Taliban the same way we brought over Sunni elements in Iraq. Some of that has already happened in Afghanistan. The Taliban switch sides pretty frequently, and you can flip militants who aren't very committed to the Taliban to support the government. Some of it is based on money; some is based on the promise of a better future than they'd have under the Taliban. But will the program work and stay fixed over the long term? We don't know that. But it is a promising development.


Obama said an "effective partnership with Pakistan" is essential to the success of his strategy. How strong of an ally is Pakistan, and what are the particular sensitivities the United States needs to deal with in regard to that country?

I don't think Pakistan is a staunch ally the same way we would think of Great Britain or France or Germany. It's allied with us, but we have many problems there. There's a government that has corruption, and a government that has certain factions that are very sympathetic to the Taliban both in their own country and in Afghanistan. They see it as a hedge against India. They see it as an anti-Indian force, so they're supportive of it. We need to get them to train an army, help us counter terrorism and perhaps help us get Osama bin Laden by turning over information they might have. And the nuclear problem is extremely important to the United States. Pakistan is estimated to have about 100 bombs. If they fall into the wrong hands, or are even used against India, that would be a huge problem for the United States. That would ricochet back on us.


Obama wants U.S. allies to send 10,000 troops to Afghanistan. How important is a commitment from them, and how likely are they to make it?

Our allies might be willing to put up more troops for a shorter period of time rather than a long-term venture. Most of these troops would come from NATO. These troops might not play a direct combat role, but could be very useful in doing these so-called "hearts and minds" campaigns to win people over. They could provide medical, veterinary and dental services. Or they could do development projects like build roads, schools, houses and paint mosques. They could do those things that the civilian government can't really do there. They could also train police and city and village officials. If we don't get all 10,000, it won't be a disaster. It will definitely take some pressure off American troops, which will be more engaged in combat.


How does the situation in Afghanistan compare to Iraq just before the Bush administration implemented its surge strategy in 2007?

In the case of Bush, things were more desperate. You had a very bitter civil war raging in Iraq for a long time. There was a lot of indiscriminate terror in the country and it was very bad. It's a little different now. We don't see massive killings on such a wide scale. The Taliban are not al-Qaida. They're waging a more traditional counterinsurgency, while al-Qaida waged more indiscriminate attacks in Iraq – almost without motive sometimes. The Taliban is trying to capture the loyalty of the people not just by killing but by actually providing a sort of shadow government by administrating justice, settling disputes and trying to provide some normalcy so long as people adhere to their very strict interpretation of Islam. That's not something al-Qaida did. That was just a very bloody movement.


How should "winning the war in Afghanistan" be defined?

We need a stable government that will not allow al-Qaida to return. We're mostly concerned that al-Qaida will have a sanctuary in Afghanistan. They already have one in Pakistan, and they will project their force. If we lose in the sense that we pull out of Afghanistan and some militant faction takes over and welcomes al-Qaida back, al-Qaida will not just win in Afghanistan, but will win psychologically in a lot of other areas. And that will mean other insurgencies will only get worse around the world. Al-Qaida would get an enormous boost if the United States were to just pull out.



Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Tom Henriksen, Hoover Institution: (650) 723-4255,

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